Stricken metaphor spotted on Geary. Photo by Jim Herd

Muni, the transit agency that slowly trundles people and urine around San Francisco, is in a bad way. 

Its current daily ridership stands at 183,000 — down from 710,000 in pre-pandemic 2019 which, itself, was down from 728,000 in 2016. 

But, just like a rider on the 14-Mission realizing hey, that’s not Mountain Dew, this gets worse.

Between 2013 and 2019, Muni’s vehicular operating expenses grew from $663 million to $856 million — a 29 percent spike. Its overall expenses grew in that time from $785 million to $1.1 billion (41 percent). At the same time, fare revenue dropped from $220 million to $197 million — a 10.5 percent decrease. 

Then came the pandemic — and, in all likelihood, years of people with the luxury to do so shunning public transit, despite what Dr. Fauci et al. would tell you about low transmissibility on buses and trains. Then came a Covid-induced revenue free-fall — coupled, jarringly, with renewed calls to make Muni free

The problem — or at least a problem, and a big one — is that this city’s political class has for aeons treated Muni not so much as a transit agency but as San Francisco’s Giving Tree. Rather than balance their own budgets, other city departments have raided Muni to the tune of scores of millions of dollars a year via “work orders.” And politicians’ ostensibly well-meaning calls to make Muni free for larger and larger swaths of the population — or everyone — almost never include permanent funding. Or any funding at all. 

If Muni restores full pre-pandemic service — of course that’s a big if — it’s looking at a $155 million yearly structural deficit by 2022. Making Muni free would further nix perhaps $200 million in fare money. 

So, yes, Muni is in a bad way.

Ce n’est pas Mountain Dew

And, by the way, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Central Subway will finally debut. And this will be a logistical and financial disaster, just like every responsible transit expert, journalist and (out-of-office) politician has said it would be, for decades. It’ll be a cuckoo in the nest, devouring and diverting Muni resources and money, spawning creative new manners of transit meltdowns to bedevil put-upon riders, and, perhaps worst of all, blocking future growth. 

This is San Francisco’s transit future. And its future writ large: Like so many vestiges of city life — schooling, housing —  transit reflects the increasing inequities of the nation’s most inequitable city. As Muni grows less and less tolerable, more and more riders with the means and options to abandon it do so — leading to Muni growing even less tolerable, more riders abandoning it, and an accelerated route to inviability. 

This is the Muni Death Spiral. Our transit agency and others have flirted with its event horizon for decades. But, now, it’s an appallingly real possibility, due to a confluence of factors — including a pandemic, a recession, and VC-subsidized parasitic transit companies being coddled by city leaders and enabled to enshrine their own oppressive labor laws by state voters.

It sounds bad because it is bad. But the transformation of Muni into a billion-dollar service catering to only those without the means to opt out needn’t be our future. This is not inevitable. 

But this city needs to have frank and honest discussions about what it expects out of its transit service, and how it’s going to get paid for. This needs to happen — and soon.

To do otherwise is to fail to plan. And when you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail. 

Photo by Aaron Kitashima.

In 2018, Muni leadership planned to fail. 

It neglected to warn riders — or even the mayor — that it was going to backfill service lost during the closing of the Twin Peaks Tunnel by secretively yanking buses off its most crowded lines.  

This led to predictable chaos and misery. But — also predictably — riders didn’t think Is Muni sabotaging itself and doing it in secret? Rather, their recriminations tended to be of the Muni suuuuucks! variety. 

And this may be the most unforgivable sin of all. 

When you consider how difficult it is to do things in San Francisco, and how Muni’s routes retrace redundant, century-old competing private trolley lines, and how many terrible management decisions have been made — you know, Muni usually works pretty decently. Riders are often left griping about trips that, throughout much of urban America, would have been inconceivable to begin with.

But its reputation is in shambles because riders better remember the terrible experiences than the mundane ones. Muni management, it seems, took note of that. And they used Muni’s hyperbolically overblown bad rep as a cover to clandestinely kneecap the service and make things as abysmal as everybody already said they were.

You know what? That sounds like bad karma. And here we are. 

The Muni Death Spiral. Image by Andrew Nilsen.

In fact, it’s a hell of a lot easier to notice Muni’s failures than its successes. As far back as the crafting of the Transit Effectiveness Project some 15 years ago, Muni officials knew the service — already the slowest in North America — would grow about 1 percent slower every year without proactive investment. 

That means in order to just maintain the less-than-stellar status quo, Muni must constantly invest more resources — more vehicles, more drivers, more runs.

Increased congestion on city streets means it takes longer in the early 21st century to get across town than it did in the days streetcars ran to Colma to drop the deceased off at their well and truly final stop. And that was before Uber and Lyft: The ascent of these San Francisco-based companies has super-pumped congestion, cannibalized Muni ridership, and reduced the parking meter money and ticket fees used to subsidize core transit service. 

In recent years, concerted efforts to increase speed and reliability on specific Muni lines has led to tangible success: Amazingly, more people ride when their ride is faster and more reliable. What a revelation. 

But the pandemic has thrown a wrench in all of that. And now our discussions about how to approach the entire Muni system are of a different nature altogether. 

Or at least they should be.

Nostalgia, it turns out, can not only be saccharine — but also very high in sodium.

So, cable cars

Everybody loves cable cars. People travel from around the world to ride on them (and, currently, merely look at them). They dress inappropriately, creating a market for fleece sweaters, and buy snow globes featuring cable cars traversing a hill in a city where it hasn’t snowed in two generations. And everyone is happy. 

Except Muni. Everyone loves cable cars, and, surely, they’re making money for someone. But the one entity left holding the bag is Muni — and, in 2019, the cable cars ran at a $46 million operating deficit.

That’s a loss of $126,000 a day and $882,000 a week. And that’d be justifiable if the cable cars operated as a transit service rather than a tourist attraction — but this hasn’t been the case for decades. And yet that money comes out of the same pot used to fund core transit.

And that’s ridiculous. And inequitable. That’s what I wrote in 2010, and again in 2013. And, since that last column, the cable cars’ operating expenditures went up by 40 percent, while fare revenue dropped. It would be madness to stick Muni — and only Muni — with this bill, even if we weren’t in the midst of a crippling pandemic that threatens the viability of Muni writ large. 

Well, we are. But, guess what? The cable cars will come back. Cable car service is, uniquely, mandated in the city charter. It warrants mentioning that bus service and streetcar service and light-rail service is not. Surely, a San Francisco without cable cars is missing a piece of its soul. But a San Francisco without a functioning transit system has lost major organs and appendages. 

Assuming we feel cable cars are worth having — and to imply otherwise feels a bit like laughing and cheering at the end of Old Yeller — how do we want to pay for that? 

Sticking it on Muni doesn’t work this time. Muni can’t be the Giving Tree anymore.

And, assuming we feel Muni is worth having — how do we pay for that? And what do we want Muni to be? 

Sculpture created by Andrew Nilsen

These are difficult questions in the best of times. These are not the best of times. If the pandemic changes work life forever — if the FiDi remains a ghost town — Muni’s entire modus operandi and raison d’être will have to be remade. 

Muni is facing existential pressure, but pandemic-related uncertainty renders it impossible to responsibly predict and plan for all but the very near future. Ongoing deliberations in Washington, D.C. may make or break the future of mass-transit. As may state- and county-level decisions on whether transit operators can be vaccinated (In San Francisco, this was approved last week).  

Locally, expect moves to re-authorize the Proposition K sales tax. Expect general obligation bonds. Expect parcel taxes to be on the 2022 ballot, which, unlike bonding, can be applied toward operational budgets (expect polling for those in the coming days and weeks). And don’t be surprised if Muni searches for endowments for benevolent causes like free fares for youth. (Or, may I humbly suggest, for the cable cars. Rich people and corporations would like that, and you can direct the money you save toward benevolent causes.) 

And, after all that, expect a disaster when, as noted above, that Central Subway opens

It will run at an operating loss. It will syphon vehicles and workers away from core service. It will add to Muni’s maintenance backlog. By running it as an extension of the T-Third, the possibility exists for delays and backups along the entire, miles-long line. And, head-smackingly, the platforms on the tunnel were only built large enough to accommodate two-car trains. So, even if, in the far future, the abortive tunnel is extended to Fisherman’s Wharf, two-car trains won’t figure to be able to accommodate enough passengers: A train coming from, say, the Marina during heavy hours would be so full that it couldn’t take any riders by the time it hit Chinatown. 

Muni runs slow. Not nearly fast enough to outrace its past. And as such, its future is uncertain. 

Unless we fail to plan. Then we are certain to fail. 


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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Great article. But misses out some key bits. If you dont know the history of how and why MUNI bought out / merged with its competition in the 1940’s none of the utterly dysfunctional recent history makes any sense. Or why MUNI is unreformable.

    Hint, MUNI like Amtrack only exists for the benefit of the employees not the passengers. If passengers were important it would be shut down and the services put out to competitive tender like they are in some European countries. Then you would discover just how overstaffed and overpaid current MUNI is for the level of service provided.

    I am also reminded of an article in the Sunday Chronicle back in the early 1990’s comparing labor and running costs for public transit in San Francisco and San Jose. Basically if MUNI was shutdown and every last employee fired and the VTA (of the time) ran transit in San Francisco it would break even rather than losing huge amounts of money. Even back then MUNI employees, especially administration were paid up to two to three times more than in SJ. When all benefits were included.

    So a repeat of the history of each cities municipal water. SF very late and spectacularly more expensive.

    As long as there is MUNI public transit in SF will suck. As inevitable as the next Big One.

  2. “Muni has to work well for the people of San Francisco, so that it is their first option.”

    To the Honorable Mayor London Breed,
    Quoting your declaration in 2018, but as we come out of the Covid-19 ‘Wormhole’, things have changed. I still believe it is achievable but will take major overhauling.

    Commute car traffic has returned to over 80%.
    Tele-commuting has taken on a life of its own.
    No commuting for businesses and employees of those who lost their jobs.

    Muni is down to a fraction of its past 700,000 plus boardings a day.

    TRANSIT FIRST – Turn it into a reality.
    This can best be achieved by utilizing ‘State of the Art GPS, accurate to within 2-3 cm, combining all Transit Vehicles with San Francisco’s ‘Arterial Stop Lights’ with a master computer too synchronize, anticipate and regulate Muni. This can also be used to assist Police, Fire and Emergency equipment.

    TRUST – Establish
    ‘Sea Cliff’ Restaurant, ‘Louis’ Diner & ‘Seal Rock Inn’ have all been put out of business from Covid-19 restrictions.
    38 Geary busses park within walking distance, yet their seating is not marked off for ‘Social Distancing’, nor do the bus stops have proper ‘Social Distancing’ markings for passengers to follow.
    Despite American Public Transit Association (APTA) advisories, along with multiple transit authorities actions to make the riders safer, Muni has ignored them. This must change, we are not out of the woods yet, even Vice President Kamala Harris advises so.
    Harris tells UN body it’s time to prepare for next pandemic

    Marking ‘Social Distancing’ on buses & bus stops, will act a a reminder of this disaster & a future preparation.

    RELIABILITY – Performance times need to improve.
    3rd Street Rail being the most egregious. Coupled trains stopping every posted stop, the worst culprit. Skip-Stop utilizing ‘A’ & ‘B’ trains will get all passengers to their destinations with far less delay.
    Muni 28 line is in the process of skipping stops, leaving all passengers still crowded onto a single bus. Skip-Stop with A & B buses, splits the ridership and speed of transit times for all.

    In order to achieve this, to your stated end, will require even more operators.
    No layoffs should take place, even more working personnel will be needed.

    Committing too carrying out and achieving the voters will, when they passed Proposition ‘J’ in 1995. Few if any of the proposals were ever enacted (PDF attached)
    One Coach one Driver – Skip-Stop – Adopting ‘Bar Coding’ for inventory & repair tracking – A complete review of the Proposition ‘J’ will reveal even more.

    Most prominent advisory from Proposition ‘J’ – ‘Stop wastefully idling buses, was addressed and put to bed under your watch.

    Let’s make your vision of ‘Muni as the first choice’ a reality.

    Michael B. Cheney – Retired San Frandiso Civil Servant

  3. Joe, welcome back onboard MUNI…

    The 4th Estate is granted specific rights, withholding their sources, press passes and more, so the can get to the truth for the public good. No journalist, in decades, has done a better job of it, regarding San Francisco’s public transit, than you. With real and tangible results!

    Our Covid-19 pandemic wormhole, has us rubbing our eyes in disbelief as we look at the devastation it has brought about. MUNI, once the beating heart that made our City work (not always well, but well enough) needs major surgery!

    ‘Hells Bells’ it needs a transplant!

    1. I know the popular thing to do right now is to rag on San Francisco and demonize every aspect of its municipality employees , its leaders, its citizens. I think my favorite new trend is expressing anger towards the exit of the techies and anger for the fact that they’re no longer commuting downtown. I thought you didn’t want them here to begin with. Now you’re pissed off because they’re leaving? I got to be honest with you, I think San Francisco total transportation system is phenomenal. I write it every single day, and it’s great. Maybe some of you don’t realize how spoiled you are. Why don’t you go live in Kansas City, in Phoenix, in Denver, in St Louis. Go to Houston, shit, go to LA and try using their public transportation system. Newsflash, we are not in Europe. I wish we paid more attention to trains in this country, but we’re car culture. It’s just a fact. So what’s the answer? Kill the system, build less track? I thought a car since I was 16 years old but after living here for 6 months I sold my car and I’ve been taking public transit ever since. Take the train everywhere good I did that because I have the opportunity good other people will do the same. Keep expanding it. And I don’t know where these hobos are they are talking about. I never see hobos on the train ever. Yeah there’s what was in the buses as there are in every city in the world. Get used to it you snowflakes. The city is pretty and it’s dirty. Is that like a shock? I look at these comment boards and all I see is delusional Hermits. So if you’re so close-minded and it’s just bothersome how have you been able to function and then I realize you don’t function you don’t. This cardboard is full of low-functioning people. Great article. Comments suck

    1. I realize that Muni is in a bad way with funding issues due to the pandemic and is trying to survive. At the same time, they threw disabled and fragile people under the bus pre-covid, so to speak, when they removed forward-facing seats in the new rail cars and also in the front loading areas of half the buses. Not everyone is able-bodied. Not everyone can stand or sit sideways. Muni needs to learn to serve ALL its riders, not just the healthy ones. Half the buses need some forward-facing seats returned to them and the new rail cars need an adequate amount of forward-facing seats for disabled and fragile riders.

      1. I am going to add another statement. Everyone understands why Rosa Parks insisted upon not giving up her seat on the bus – so she and African Americans could ride equitably. I am asking no less for riders who do not have healthy backs – anyone with back injuries, anyone who’s physically fragile – we need back support – forward-facing seats – in our transportation in order to be able to access public transportation. We are unable to stand, and we are unable to ride sideways and handle sideways motion – it INJURES us.
        It is WRONG for Muni to get rid of forward-facing seats in the boarding area of HALF the buses – we need 2-5 forward-facing seats restored to HALF the buses so that fragile people have an OPTION to ride the bus.
        It is WRONG for Muni to have thrown out forward-facing seats in the new railcars – we need an adequate number back. I surveyed 100 riders and then 400 riders as to their opinions about the new railcars. Both times, half the riders said they liked the new railcars and half said they didn’t. The second time, when I asked the half of the 400 riders – ie 200 people – if they preferred to ride forwards or sideways, the answer was 50/50, or approximately 100 riders for either answer, meaning that a quarter of the riding public prefers to ride in supportive forward-facing seats, and within that quarter are DISABLED riders who NEED those seats. Meaning that if there are very few forward-seats in the new railcars, there is going to be a fight for the limited number of forward seats that are expected to be restored to the railcars. Regular folks who would like to sit in them are going to be asked to give them up for those who need them. And what if people don’t speak English, like we have a lot of Chinese riders on the N line. How are we all supposed to negotiate our needs? That has not been an issue on the older Breda cars with mostly forward-facing seats – there have been enough forward-facing seats for a fragile or disabled person who needs one to get one. We need our supportive forward-facing seats back.

  4. Regarding: “VC-subsidized parasitic transit companies”, transit, per state law, refers to public transportation: 642. A “transit bus” is any bus owned or operated by a publicly owned or operated transit system, or operated under contract with a publicly owned or operated transit system, and used to provide to the general public, regularly scheduled transportation for which a fare is charged. A general public paratransit vehicle is not a transit bus.
    (Added by Stats. 1989, Ch. 1136, Sec. 2. Operative July 1, 1990, by Sec. 9 of Ch. 1136.) So the term shouldn’t be applied to private operations that are competing with Muni and other transit agencies.

  5. Muni suffers from many of the same issues that BART does, and Muni’s issues are exacerbated by the MTA, an organization that has added way too much bloat to the whole operation. The common issues:

    1. Rampant fare evasion which reduces operating revenues
    2. Abysmal maintenance and practically non-existent cleaning
    3. Over-reliance on a single track (the Transbay Tube for BART and the Metro system for Muni). When those single tracks have a problem,the entire system breaks down.
    4. Management that doesn’t. Meaning they don’t manage and they don’t plan.

    I remember in the early 90’s, when Emilio Cruz was GM of Muni. They tried to incorporate the new MRT cars with the old cars, having both run in the Metro tube. It was an unmitigated disaster and one that anyone with a sense of engineering should have seen coming, but they didn’t. That type of management has continued at the MTA.

  6. Let’s congratulate the City’s Zero Vision initiative: “You Won’t See it Coming ®”
    Zero Vision complements San Francisco’s existing Transit Last policy, which officially discourages people from going anywhere, at any time. Transit Last deploys a cascading system of obstruction beginning with cars. Subsidies to the tech industry, with its highly paid workforce, have added roughly 200,000 vehicles registered within city limits. Meanwhile, new housing developments are bereft of parking. Thousands of parking spaces have been removed in favor of bike lanes, parklets, safe injection sites and so on. Miles of traffic lanes have been removed, causing gridlock throughout South of Market and Downtown. The first domino to fall after automobile traffic is Muni, which shares many roads with cars. Transit Last’s success is indisputable, as San Francisco has achieved the slowest, least reliable, yet most expensive municipal transit system in the nation. Forced out of cars and public transit, people have resorted to bicycles and electric scooters. Since the vast majority of these cyclists are clueless Millennials on crappy rental bikes, sharing the road with construction vehicles, injury accidents have been on the rise for several years. You Won’t See it Coming®!

  7. Muni collapsed ? Muni has been long dead!!! And don’t believe it will ever resurrect …. Fired SFMTA… hold them accountable… Remember prop E 1999, what about muni reform -prop G 2010?
    What about China town 2 miles laying of wrong tracks, not too mention the miserable twin peak failures in 2018, what about the muni melted down on 2020…? And list goes on and on…

  8. we left out the GIGANTIC boondoggle—the Van Ness Bus Corridor–way over budget and 3 years late for completion—–will probably
    “speed” the buses up by about 8 minutes——and lets not forget the elderly people who will get run over trying to reach the bus stops on the median

  9. Without muni it will be impossible to go anywhere in the city, cars will clog the streets, and of course no one will ride bart post COVID. Freeways will be parking lots.

  10. Thanks Joe for another great article. I ride Muni almost daily. If there’s anything that shows San Francisco’s contempt for its working class citizens more than Muni, I do NOT want to know about it. From 1989 to 1997 I was an aid worker in Peshawar, Pakistan. I took the buses daily. When I got on I told my stop to the Conductor who then charged me 1 to 3 rupees (4 to 12 cents), depending on distance. To make that rupee a Pakistani minimum wage worker actually had to work slightly longer than a San Francisco minimum wage worker does for his or her Muni fare. But the quality of the ride easily exceeded that of a Muni ride. I never waited more than 5 minutes for a bus. I NEVER saw an elder or woman standing and rarely saw anyone else stand. Crime was non-existent. People treated each other with a respect that was routine. It should not embarrass us in our great secular capitalist city that an impoverished religious society can provide a better bus service. It should shame us. And no, we should not blame the drivers. We might try hiring conductors.

  11. Who was the Muni director (briefly) who when asked by a reporter how the Bryant Street Muni yard operations work said, paraphrasing: The buses leave in the morning and mostly return at night!

  12. Given that the commuters that used to work in the city are no longer in need of public transit, you are left with a lot less humans going anywhere by any means. If you counted the empty homes, apartments, and condos in the city you would see that there is no growth to worry about any time soon. All transit systems should figure out what is needed now and drop the 50 year growth plan. Limit Muni money to operations and maintenance and get out of the capital construction business. That is where the waste lies.

  13. How about getting Muni officials to agree to a Zoom meeting with us where we can address these issues & address our questions & get them to agree to a follow up meeting? What do other people think?

  14. There is an organization, founded as the SF Transit Riders Union, aiming to make MUNI better.
    The SF Group of the Sierra Club also has a transportation committee. Let’s join together and work to reverse the death spiral.
    As a life-long rider, I think transit is the lifeblood of our city, and agree that it needs to be the method of choice for everyone. There’s been a long-running perspective all over the region, however, to see transit as only for those who cannot choose to use another means of travel.
    Agreed: Central Subway was a bad idea and so is another BART tube. Private autos, and ride-share, are major problems. Buses are equitable and flexible, and we should be investing in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and transit-only lanes to improve speeds without sticking riders underground. Thanks, Joe, for the article, and let’s all get involved by contacting our advocacy organizations, public leaders like the Mayor, Board of Supes and MTA Board to express our concerns and volunteer to do what’s necessary to support sustainable transportation.

    1. SF Transit Riders claims there is little fare evasion. But by sitting near the rear door of buses, I can see that most passengers boarding there don’t tap a Clipper card. So much for rear door boarding. One day I sat near the front door as a homeless type boarded without paying. Driver said nothing. Then the passenger opened his coat to reveal 4 or 5 pairs of socks with labels still on them, very likely stolen.

  15. You touch on this a bit, and you are a real reporter looking at facts. But I would like to point out to you and all the commentators to take note that you are all falling into this Neo liberal economics of pay go, and that the ‘government’ cannot afford to subsidize utilities, and yes even including socialized housing. The fact that we have this discussion about public transit, while the planet is burning, within a municipal or state budget pocketbook is absurd. The federal gov’t , yes even under democrats, has drastically cut aid to cities. While loaning trillions, at near zero interest rate, to global finance. And of course ever increasing war budget….and police budgets etc. A more realistic demand would be, get fed money for trains, buses and etc NOW, though I’m not denying mis management from over paid managers….

  16. The opening sentence of this article is a gem – thanks!

    Years ago when excellent investigative journalism was not confined to Joe Eskenazi and a few others still digging around – there was an article – forget where and by whom – that examined ALL costs of collecting fares. The conclusion was that it costs almost as much to collect fares as what they brought in with a commentary that fare collection was a gravy train for a myriad of City workers and contractors.

    Think about what it takes to maintain Clipper, gate machines, collect cash fares, count/account for the money, wages, benefits, pensions, contractors, sub-contractors – the list goes on and on.

    Add to that the army of fare inspectors it would take to enforce payment and the proposition gets even sketchier.

    It would be interesting if another study (or better yet – independent audit) was done counting up all costs for fare collection today.
    And, not to belabor the point, ALL costs – every single last dime from every nook and cranny of the process.

    Muni started this death spiral when the Market Street subway was built with direction coming from BART. The design is silly and has never worked correctly or as intended and will never work adequately. Same fate to befall the Central Subway. Even the choice of light rail vehicles was/is dumb requiring the building of super expensive platforms all over the place for ADA requirements. Nobody at Muni had the foresight to check out how – oh say – Zurich – was doing light rail. Up hills in snow and ice on trafficked roads. And yeah – their system runs like a Swiss watch.

    On the flip side – the F train is a nice ride for the time unencumbered. If they can keep the interiors from being vandalized.

  17. Trying encouraging a family with teenagers to take Muni cross-town.

    In Time Before, it was 90 minutes from high school in Pac Heights to the Mission, if they were lucky. The continually lengthening times no doubt affected by 60K+ ride share cars circling the city every day and the ubiquitous, obnoxious behavior of both the drivers and riders.

    Add the filth, unmitigated harassment of young women, and drug dealing. The notion of a person asking for help from a bus driver ended a decade ago.

    I would love to know where SFUSD and DCYF stands with all of this, since middle and high school students are such big Muni customers.

    When we are in Time After and my kids have to take the bus again, we have no idea what we are going to do.

  18. Hi Joe,
    Thanks for adeptly putting your finger on much of what is wrong with transportation in San Francisco. Your reference to the eventually-to-be-opened Central Subway is right on point. Here’s some background:

    Projected 2030 Ridership: In the early “selling” days, as high as 99,200 riders a day. 2006: 61,000 riders a day. 2012: 35,000 a day. 2021: Given COVID, who knows?

    Projected Capital Costs: 2003: $647 million. 2006: $994 million. 2012: $1.578 billion. Current: at least $1.77 billion.

    Projected 2030 Operating and Maintenance Costs: 2008: will save Muni $23.8 million a year. 2012: will cost Muni 15.2 million a year. 2021: More!

  19. I started riding Muni solo at age 10 in the 1970’s. Crime in SF was much higher, but the bus itself was actually safe. The drivers, who often carried clubs, policed the buses – and didn’t let addicts, violently mentally ill or fare evaders on. Also, the busses were much more comfortable – padded seats, all facing forward with windows that opened right next to you.

    Now, the busses are devoid of seats – and the ones they have are rock hard, sideways – facing in – you can’t really even look out the windows. The buses are sterile, and consistently blaring announcements. Then throw in mentally ill, or drug addeled, or urine soaked homeless riders – and fuck it. I’ll pay a little more and take a Lyft.

    I don’t understand why Muni doesn’t focus on comfort and aesthetics – more people will ride if it’s a comfortable, clean, quiet ride.

    1. Amen. The city is just so over run with what in the 70’s we would have called scuzzy sidewalk winos that too many of these winos are taking buses. If you see someone with a bag of garbage and having trouble keep their pants getting on a bus you really don’t want to ever ride a bus again. You would rather bicycle at 70 or walk for 20 blocks. City Hall should be made aware every morning they show at work that allowing addicts everywhere here effects everything from retail stores to renters to bus riders. It drags everything down. How can you improve public transportation when street bums use it as a dorm.

  20. when i moved full-time to the City in 2001 i used Muni heavily in the beginning as i lived right on a main corridor/cross point (geary@van ness). it got me where i needed to be like the richmond or the mission. but the driving style of the Muni bus drivers was hellacious. hard on the pedals, both throttle and brakes with the passengers jerking back and forth. often the bus would just drive past and not stop even at the x-stops even though it was not full. back then i promised myself that i would use Muni no more than twice a year.
    anyway, ever since i walk (up to 3 mile radius) or use my motorcycle to get around. more convenient and way faster. i live now along the 27 northbound route where the bus stops on every single block and indeed walking is the same speed or sometimes even faster.

    1. James — 

      The difference between perception and reality is noted in the story. But it’s worth noting that Muni has done a good bit in the past five years to not only erode its reputation, including kneecapping its own service — and using its poor reputation as a cloak to do so.

      See this 2018 story:

      These happy and contented Muni riders were transformed into Uber riders in a matter of weeks. Bad service does that, and now the onus is on Muni to do better. At a very hard time to do so.


      1. You are so wrong about the facts and so wrong in your opinions, no wonder you’re writing for throw away newspapers and unheard of websites. I ride Muni everyday, and have done since 1976, and the buses are clean and fast. You are right about the cable cars though, no reason for Muni to foot that bill.

        1. Shane —

          I may write for “unheard-of” websites, but the intelligent commenters make it all worthwhile.


          1. For what it’s worth, I think you are one of the better journalists in the bay and much appreciate this and other things you write about. Re: Muni problems, just looking at how ridiculous and expensive the process to build operator bathrooms is should give anyone a good idea of how poorly managed Muni is. Lots to unpack in your article, but I think the biggest question mark will be what do they do assuming tech workers never go back to commuting on a regular basis?


            p.s. still upset about prop 22

      2. Yes, 2018 was a definitely bad year for Muni and ridership satisfaction reflected that, but as a regular rider for a long time, it was still better than in the aughts or earlier. Definitely sad to see the slippage.

        I can’t see to find Muni Ridership Surveys from 2019 or 2020, do you know where they are? Did Muni stop doing them?

    2. In other words: even before Muni allowed service to deteriorate, 3 out of 10 riders didn’t think it was even “good.” Then it got worse, as alternatives got better.

      If we care about transit in this city we have to be honest about how bad the situation is.

      How high do you honestly think that distraction number can go before the death spiral feels inevitable? Or are we already there?

    3. I sure hope Muni continues because once they return me to work onsite, I’m depending on it to get me there every day. By the way, if you haven’t ridden Muni since the pandemic, It’s almost all black and brown people with a few Asians and maybe one mentally ill white man riding and it’s pretty clear that we (well most of us) are all trying to get to or from a job. So before anyone discounts its value, please consider the needs of less privileged people who can’t afford a personal taxi service like Uber/Lyft.

    4. Ahem. Survey responses were dominated by people answering on-line. No way to verify those respondents were actual regular MUNI riders. No large-scale answers from those lacking or unable to answer on-line. Meaning survey answers are statistically biased. But, MTA management and bd. of dirs. won’t add that clarifying info. into their p.r. releases.

  21. What an opportunity to allow the system to collapse so we may rid it of the public-employee unions and start paying wages with benefits that aren’t super inflated and constantly beleaguing the budget!

    1. So says the guy, who probably doesn’t ever ride Muni. Thanks for the 2 cents Hector. You sound like a tool, like those in Texas, who want to deregulate and destroy everything, then turn around and blame the govt. for trying to improve people’s lives. Then again, maybe you’re just envious and miserable.

      1. Don’t bother addressing the problem when you can just attack and question the character of the commentor. I ride Muni plenty, thank you for assuming.

  22. For 20 years I’ve been pushing my Muni slogan (TM):

    “Muni — Slightly faster than walking … unless it’s raining”

    1. MUNI Express lines are the exception. They run on time, they are clean, and don’t have a lot of (noticable) meth heads.
      NEVER take the underground the day after a rain.

  23. I lived in SF from 79 to 11 when I had to leave for family reasons and I remember Muni was fairly efficient and at least clean in the early days. I took the 1 Cal X from 22nd and Cal to Montgomery and Bush for years and even if company had paid my parking I would have ridden Muni as I always had a seat and could read paper on way to work (back when who didn’t start day with Herb Caen). However by my last years service was going way downhill and jumping on Metro to get to Civic Center say involved running a gauntlet of increasingly scary and thuggish homeless people. Also I have to say only Muni could manage to lose money on as popular an attraction as cable cars.

  24. Nice article stating the obvious Truth. Muni has been operating as a “religion” divorced from reality for so long, that it will need to die if it ever wants to live again. The dogmas surrounding “mass transit” and “more density” blithely chanted by largely unelected “officials” who have been totally unresponsive the vast majority of San Franciscans, have inevitably led to a place where residents who CAN opt out of the most oppressive (and now obviously most unhealthy) aspects of the City, will.

    The “hollowing out” phenomena we’re seeing with MUNI (where only the most dysfunctional “use” it) will advance through the City as a whole. Retail is already gone. We’re seeing “downtown” (high rise office buildings) emptying out. Next will be the blocks of high rise luxury condos the Planning Commission has forced into neighborhoods to accommodate people who never should have been in San Francisco. And finally, the historically “livable” housing areas in the neighborhoods will wobble, as the entire City, burdened by years of unsustainable expenses, pension obligations and oppressive “public policy” decisions, sheds more and more of it’s functional citizens, creating a vortex of Flight similar to what happened in the 50s/60s. Left behind will be crumbling, crime ridden wreckage. A “MUNI of the City,” as Larry Ferlinghetti might have said.

    The “canary in the coal mine” is singing with the collapse of MUNI. What a shame City officials are so invested in their dystopian narrative of urban life that they will never hear it.

  25. Great story! I’ve lived here since 72 and used to use Muni a lot. The old green street cars on Market Street were ubiquitous and signified SF to me. Nobody ever loved riding the bus or trams (they’re all gone now) but they were clean and got you there, when you needed it. Today they are often depots for addicts who need a warm place to sit for a while and maybe leave some urine behind. It is far cry downward from what it was in the seventies or eighties. It’s been on a rollercoaster to hell for a long time in tandem with this beautiful city, too PC to care to notice the scuzzy winos ( addicts) everywhere. Oh, I’m sorry the underserved. The state of MUNI is just incomprehensibly depressing to anyone who remembers it from better days.

    1. Ed Lee did no favors for MUNI!! SFMTA has NO talent, the measures they take absolutely sabotage M UNI , the streets so efed up they put drain on hill at Central @ Haight so water will flood pedestrian crosswalk. Sidewalks bizarrely built into street where bus stops creates traffic jam . Signals on every block of Haight is strategized CONGESTION!!! It is bizarre!!! I’ve ridden Muni since 1950 and was a great system until the extremely UNTALENTED SFMTA and the other CORRUPTION of downtown crooks nuru, Lee + the latest reveal.

  26. How about Muni Police on every bus and bus stop. The increased fares, safety, and comfort would help finances and ridership.

    1. Mandating Muni Police on *every* bus and *every* bus stop towards the end of “helping finances” must involve some back of the napkin math I’m not privy to? Muni Police don’t work for free, and I’m assuming their salaries (and the resulting OT) are paid via the beleaguered Muni budget? Or am I missing something here?

      1. Muni doesn’t have police officers. There are SFPD who are detailed to support Muni, and there are Fare Inspectors. Fare Inspectors are not sworn officers. I don’t know the payment structure of the PD support but I do know that Fare Inspectors’ current salary range is listed at $70-85k annually (that doesn’t include fringe or benefits, so the tab that MTA pays is much higher.) The are 87 light rail stops and more than 1,000 bus stops citywide. Fare inspection is meant to make people think twice about not paying, but 1. it will never provide adequate funding, even at 100% compliance fares are only a minority of the Agency’s funding, and 2. it is well documented in transit research that fare payment programs never result in turning a profit (that is, staff costs far exceed what they collect in fees.)

    2. Here’s what I’ve seen happen (on the K):

      1) Fare inspector boards the train.
      2) About half of the passengers run to the nearest reader and tag in their Clipper cards.
      3) Fare inspector unleashes a savage, almost merciless finger wag upon the scofflaws and lumbers off the train.

      If I were you, I wouldn’t count on any kind of enforcement.

  27. wow, i thought muni had problems but we might as well start writing the obituary.

    as a lifelong resident, muni’s bus lines have always appeared to run on a befuddling schedule. no 1 california for 20 minutes, then there will three buses in a 2 minute span and the last one empty. no 47 or 49 for 30 minutes, then five 47 and 49s within a three minute span, half the buses empty. the light rail is even worse, someone is passed out drunk on a train somewhere between west portal and the embarcadero? boom, half the city’s commute just imploded from a 20 minute ride to an hour of your face in another person’s armpit.

    you speak to this in your article: “riders better remember the terrible experiences than the mundane ones”. i think the terrible experiences are too frequent based on my experiences in other large cities (new york, chicago, boston, etc).

    what isn’t mentioned is fare evasion. half the people on muni trains or buses aren’t paying customers. how much revenue is lost because of this (does this compound the budget issues you illustrate)? the other issue that i hear about frequently, is muni’s labor contract. i’ve heard two things on this: 1. the wage progression is too slow so it’s hard to attract talented drivers, 2. the contract incentivizes the use of sick time, so others can get overtime. these two things exacerbate the poor experiences muni’s customers have and lead to less confidence in the system at large.

    great article, just my two cents.

    1. …1) “what isn’t mentioned is fare evasion. half the people on muni trains or buses aren’t paying customers.”…this is true…i have counted…btw, bart is even worse for gate jumpers…this must be addressed…pay a fare, even if subsidized, or show a card, or you don’t get on…period…sydney and amsterdam dealt with this, why can’t we?…damn…

      …2) and don’t even get me started on there not being a market street station on the chinatown line…

    2. Excellent piece. Maybe it’s time for congestion pricing but adding to the cost of anything in the city now would probably be another nail in the coffin.
      That plus the city has to clean it’s self up and address personal safety for all. We quit all Bay Area public transit a couple years ago, avoid higher crime areas, (a weekly expanding ‘no fly zone’) , and only walk in good light.

  28. Just take a look at the 300-foot escalator ride and 1/2 mile hike required to transfer between the Central Subway and the Powell St. station. You’ll begin to wonder whether improving transit was ever much of a priority for that project in the first place.

    1. it wasn’t. it was to compensate chinatown for tearing down the Embarcadero freeway. do you really think they’ll give up the 30 and 45 buses when it’s all done? i doubt it.